In 1925, a German immigrant named Winold Reiss was invited to design and illustrate an issue of the journal Survey Graphic devoted to Harlem, the new cultural capital of Black America. So he got together his conté crayons and pastels and went uptown to draw Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and other eminences of what would come to be called the Harlem Renaissance, along with various of their less famous neighbors.
After the magazine was printed, though, his gallery, otherwise doing a brisk business for him, refused to show the work. In “The Art of Winold Reiss: An Immigrant Modernist” at the New-York Historical Society, his sensitive, humane, occasionally brilliant Harlem portraits get their first museum showing here since appearing at the 135th Street Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library nearly a century ago.
The son and grandson of illustrators and lithographers, Reiss (1886-1953) studied fine art in Munich, but he paid his way with commercial jobs in portraiture and advertising. In 1913, art markets in Germany were contracting and Reiss moved to New York, though his son, Tjark, later suggested that what really drew him to America was a desire to paint Native Americans. In fact he was fascinated by all the different faces he could find in the New World, drawing Asian Americans like Isamu Noguchi in New York, traveling to Montana to draw members of the Blackfeet Nation, and illustrating an earlier issue of Survey Graphic with portraits of Mexican revolutionaries.